The squirrel reflex.

I don’t know about you, but a strange thing happens to me when I see food from home here in France. Unexpectedly coming across a packet of ginger nuts in a French supermarket remains as incongruous for me as clapping eyes on a family of flamingos strolling across the beach in Blackpool. When my kids saw a man holding a pack of  «Seriously Strong » cheddar recently, I reluctantly had to intervene and nip their plan in the bud before they subjected him to a stealth attack in the car-park.

Seeing British food out of its usual context triggers an uncontrollable, primitive reflex in me, a squirrel-like survival instinct involving the purchase and immediate hoarding of all possible booty in a top-secret location. I mutter « my preciouuuus » under my breath, Gollum oozing from every pore as I admire my treasure trove. Infinitely more valuable than the legendary last Rolo, certain gastronomic delicacies of Perfidious Albion are jealously guarded and ceremoniously introduced to French friends (although this did backfire on me once, when a French friend practically threw up on tasting prawn cocktail crisps. You live and learn).

Me with an unexpected source of salt & vinegar crisps.

Me with an unexpected source of salt & vinegar crisps.

One memorable day in a Pezenas supermarket, I unexpectedly came across a shelf that was full to the brim with British produce. I pinched myself and looked closer, then started jumping up and down on the spot and squealing like a four-year-old who had unwittingly found her way into Willy Wonka’s factory.

A concerned P.F came hurtling round the corner with the kids following in hot pursuit, trolley teetering dangerously on two wheels. When he asked what the fuss was all about, I pointed a quivering finger at the shelf boasting a proud line-up of baked beans, my favourite brand of crisps, Ribena, Horlicks, chocolate digestives, P.G. Tips and Cadbury’s chocolate….. Like Scrat discovering a pile of acorns, I was wide-eyed and breathless, and my knees were shaking. I could finally alleviate the cold turkey symptoms of an expat life without black pepper Kettle Chips. I grabbed the shopping trolley and feverishly scooped tins of baked beans into it, happily humming Monty Python’s “Always look on the bright side of life” under my breath.

P.F, party-pooper par excellence, touched my arm and pointed solemnly at the price tag. My satisfied hum gave way to an indignant squawk, and I yelled, “Hang on, they’re beans, not caviar! That’s the price of a four-pack in Sainsbury’s! What a rip-off!” P.F helped me to return part of my hoard to the shelf, and I strode indignantly to the till with my overpriced beans, ginger nuts, porridge oats, jelly, chocolate and other comforting reminders of home. They remained in the cupboard for as long as I could resist opening them. A kind of visual reminder of home: the hot Ribena rituals of my childhood.

When we return home to see my parents, we always fit in a pilgrimage to Waitrose. Whilst the kids line up reverentially in front of the sweets, chocolates and biscuits, I am generally in front of the cheddar, bacon and sausage section, kissing the ground in a papal manner. After this moment of personal meditation and prayer to the food Gods, we grab a trolley and fill it with all the victuals needed to fill the cupboard at home in France.

However, returning to France with our booty can sometimes be complicated. I remember making the error of trying to travel with a tin of golden syrup in my hand-luggage. A verbal wrestling match ensued with the heartless robot whose X-ray machine had picked out what he obviously hoped to be his first major security threat. This would no doubt boost his career and jettison him into instant international fame for saving innocent Ryanair passengers from a madwoman armed to the hilt by Abram Lyle & Sons.

He dug the tin out of my carefully packed backpack, and pointed at it accusingly. “Can you tell me what this contains, please?” “Uh… To quote Katie Melua,  just what it says on the tin?” I suggested with humour. He stared blankly at me. “Gol-den sy-rup,” I added helpfully, pointing to the words on the oh-so-classy green and gold tin, which I had already earmarked as a pen pot for Bigfoot. I wondered whether reading was an obligatory part of the selection process for airport security, or whether communication skills were evaluated by the candidate’s ability to order a pint at last orders.

English: Lyle's Golden Syrup in a resealable t...

A very dangerous, explosive tin of Golden syrup. This image was created by Whitebox, and is licensed under the following license (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He cleared his throat and drew himself up to his full height. “Are you sure? For all I know, this could be filled with explosives.” He muttered suspiciously to himself as the queue grew. Impervious to the increasing sounds of tutting and grumbles of  “Oh for goodness sake, get a move on,” he turned the tin in his hands and inspected the plastic seal with insistence. In the end, he finally accepted my proposal to open the tin and taste the syrup. I didn’t explode, and I finally got on the plane as planned, remaining glued to my seat until arrival.

A second run-in with security happened when I was travelling back to France with a willing hostage. As airport security called me to the luggage desk, my youngest sister curled up in her seat, rolled her eyes and groaned “It just had to be you…” before disappearing behind her enviable curtain of curly hair. I had a strange sense of déjà vu as the lady unzipped my suitcase and rummaged through it, removing the offending items as she discovered them among my underwear and manky slippers. “This is bacon.” “Yes.” “Cheddar?”  “Yes.” Her eyes widened. “Baked beans? Umm….. can I ask you why you are travelling with this in your luggage?”

I wasn’t sure what to reply. Why on earth do you think I’m doing this? An Amélie Poulainèsque desire to take a photo of tin of beans at the top of the Tour Eiffel, at the Kremlin, and other exotic locations*? For my picnic on the plane because a) the food’s overpriced rubbish and b) the fart power will help me to gain altitude if the plane blows up and I find myself plunging headfirst towards the English Channel in my seat?

That was when I heard the conversation going on just beside me. “Umm…. excuse me, Madam, but can you please tell me why you have 20 walnut whips in your luggage ?” I turned my head, our eyes met, and mine lit up. “Are you going to tell them, or shall I?”

* I  do in fact know of a blog about a travelling bag of oats, and it’s jolly good, it’s called “Tales of a Travelling Porridge”, and it’s here!

24 thoughts on “The squirrel reflex.

  1. Brilliant as always.
    Today, I’m planning a trip to Tesco, but I’ll be reasonable: just a packet of shortbreads, chocolate digestives (McVities) and some PG tea bags. See, even the French can’t resist it… =)

  2. When I receive a phone call, from family or friends, to say they are coming over. I first check the cupboards to see what we are running low on, and if they have space to bring me English Goodies.

    I flew to the UK at the beginning of November and returned with 400 Yorkshire T bags, 5 Kilo of bacon and assorted jars of pickles. Mrs Sensible warned me, I would be in trouble if I wasted my weight allowance with Walkers Crisps.

    • I suspect that the same phenomenon occurs on an international scale. I have yet to find a solution for the crisp issue; it breaks my heart to leave them in the UK when I have such a welcoming home for them here, but Ryan Air’s draconian luggage rules have me sunk. For the moment, the only solution is to eat them all before checking in. Fortunately, I have just found a fabulous shop 20 minutes away, run by a real Brit selling real British food (including Marmite, which I don’t classify as food).So I’m now a happy camper.

      • just yesterday or the other day, on the news (BBC? channel $?) they interviewed this guy who’s just setup this new business, sending food parcels to expats!!!! ahahhhahaha now you can order on the internet all your favourites, and a Santa parcel will arrive… I will look up who the guy is and will post a link… 🙂

      • Lucky you. I use Ryanair, and after every flight I make a solemn promise tomy self that I will never book another flight with them. But who else will fly me to the UK and back for 50 euros???

      • I fly Ryanair too, and tell my kids that the planes fly thanks to well-wound up rubber bands. Maybe you should set up your own boutique for expats, and call it “Marmite Marvels”.

      • Fantastic name… I wanted to open an English Book / coffee shop and sell other things, such as tea tea pots anything ‘very’ English.

        Mrs Sensible vetoed it, she said the cost of opening it and the taxes would kill us. I sulked for days, nay weeks.

        On hindsight she was correct. 😦

      • Probably depends on where you are; if there is a university nearby or the area attracts expats like flies, it works, but otherwise it’s probably risky business. Always listen to Mrs Sensible.

  3. I think if you ever travel to Italy or Croatia, they will also need a lot of explanation as to what Golden Syrup is…. I still don’t know what is it !!!??? just say “It’s like honey” …

  4. What if you fall upon a “panse de brebis farcie” (sorry, I don’t have the Scott words for that tasty piece of gastronomy) on the shelves of your favorite Leclerc supermarket ?

    • Hello, Papounet! It’s called “haggis”, and it’s actually delicious, but onyl if you buy it at the butcher’s shop in Scotland. A little like the difference between home-made cassoulet and the tinned variety, one is edible and the other is not 🙂

  5. You sweetie. Thank you for mentioning me. I have been absent from my blog for a week or two with things piling up elsewhere and was just finishing the first draft of a couple of posts when I saw this. I appreciate it, MM.
    I am told that Australians miss vegemite when overseas. My youngest does, but I can’t bear the stuff. Chocolate is better in Europe so I’m happy. I miss the cheese when I come home and dance as you did when I am back gazing at the marvellously stocked fridges. And now I feel a craving coming on.

  6. I find the way you write funny 🙂 I love your title and especially the line “the fart power will help me to gain altitude if the plane blows up and I find myself plunging headfirst towards the English Channel in my seat?” lol ! As for me, I have the squirrel reflex whenever I’m in a store full of baking items and ingredients, I can spend my life there haha 🙂

    • Thanks for coming by for a read, and I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂 Don’t tell anyone but it’s one of my favourite lines too, pity I can’t draw or I would have put myself there in mid-air a wonderwoman cape, clutching a tin of syrup 🙂 As for the baking shelf, I always buy cream of tartar, bicarbonate of soda and mixed spice when I’m home then squirrel them away in my cupboard!

  7. Pingback: British corner shop comes to Croatia | Our Adventure In Croatia

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